Zapotec Culture


The Zapotec culture was a Mesoamerican aboriginal people of the pre-Columbian period whose origin dates back to 3,500 years ago , between the 15th and 14th centuries BC. The Zapotecs settled in various areas of Mexico such as the South of the Oaxaca Valley and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec . Its most important city was Monte Albán and in it, there are evidence of its buildings, playgrounds, tombs and jewels worked in gold.

What is the Zapotec culture?

The Zapotec culture is a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican society that occupied southern Oaxaca, southern Puebla and Guerrero, and the Isthmus of Tehuantes in Mexico. The Zapotec people were sedentary and polytheistic , believed in the cult of the dead and developed a language with a writing based on hieroglyphics. The Zapotec name comes from the Nahuatl language and means “people of the clouds . ” Archaeological evidence affirms that Zapotec culture dates from the 15th and 14th centuries BC.


Characteristics of the Zapotec culture

Among the most representative characteristics of the Zapotec culture the following can be mentioned:

  • They were sedentary . They lived in large villages. They built their houses with stone and mortar.
  • Its main city was Monte Albán.
  • Its main religious center was in Mitla.
  • They had their own language with a complex writing system .
  • They created two calendars to know the growing seasons in the year.
  • They were polytheists , because they believed in various gods and in the cult of the dead.
  • They developed art, mathematics, architecture, and astrology.
  • They lived from agriculture . They grew corn, chili , beans, squash, and cocoa.
  • They worked goldsmithing and crafts with ceramics.
  • They built large buildings , stadiums, pyramids, and temples for funeral rites.

History of Zapotec culture

The origins of the Zapotec culture dates back to the 15th and 14th centuries BC when the first urban center of this population developed.

Between 500 BC and 1000 AD , the Zapotecs settled in the valleys of the state of Oaxaca in Mexico .

The first Zapotecs were sedentary, they lived in small agricultural towns , they had a religious center in Mitla and a large city in Monte Albán . The Zapotecs must have had affinities with the Olmec, Mayan and Toltec peoples since these cultures coexisted near their territories.

Little by little, the Zapotec people became a civilization with buildings, ball stadiums, tombs and a commercial development rich in farm products, crafts, cultural events, among others.

Its cities were inhabited for several centuries but little by little between 700 and 800 AD they were abandoned.

Monte Albán had control of the valleys until the end of the Mesoamerican Classic Period between 700 and 1200 AD. Despite this, the Zapotec people continued to inhabit the valleys of Oaxaca, Tabasco and Veracruz.

Later, the Mixtecs occupied Monte Albán and later Mitla. The Zapotecs moved to the lands of Tehuantepec de los Zoques and the Gulf of Tehuantepec.

In the middle of the 15th century, the Mixtecs and the Zapotecs made alliances to fight against the Mexica and thus prevent them from occupying the commercial routes of Chiapas, Veracruz and Guatemala. The Zapotecs succeeded for a short time and then had to make a pact with the Mexica to preserve their autonomy until the arrival of the Spanish to their lands.


The Zapotec culture was located in southern Oaxaca, southern Puebla and Guerrero, and the Isthmus of Tehuantes in Mexico.

Political and social organization

The Zapotec people were organized into two social classes , the dominant ones made up of priests, soldiers, and merchants; and the dominated one made up of peasants, hunters, goldsmiths, weavers and porters.

Sex was also a determining factor in the activities of the Zapotecs. The women were in charge of gathering, preparing food, and taking care of the home, and the man in hunting, fishing, working in the fields, pottery, trade, and war.

Traditions of Zapotec culture

The Zapotec culture had many customs and traditions that are still known today.

Among them we can mention:

  • The candlelight activity, which was carried out at night parties with religious reasons.
  • The celebration of the day of the dead.
  • The celebration of the corn goddess Centéotl
  • The musical and dance festivals called “Mondays on the Hill”.
  • The Guelaguetza songs.
  • Ball games.

Zapotec culture art

The art of the Zapotec people was made with different types of stone and many decorative designs.

They also developed mural painting and bas-reliefs on their monuments and buildings.

Their subjects were the gods, their religious activities, and the warriors and captives of their battles.


Zapotec crafts were very varied due to the development of pottery , saddlery, guarachería, and wool, silk and cotton textiles.

Their crafts had two basic functions, those of practical use and the decorative ones. His pieces were unique, some were similar but never the same.

The Zapotecs also made gold jewelery and black clay objects typical of the Oaxaca region.

Language and writing

The Zapotec language is derived from other languages ​​such as Otomí, Mazahua, and Parme. Zapotec is a tonal language because its meanings are given in function of the intensity of the tones that can be high, low or medium, ascending or descending.

Currently, this language is spoken by more than 400,000 people in central and eastern Oaxaca, Mexico.

His writing uses the Roman alphabet and nine more letters and his grammatical order is given in the sentence by placing the verb first, followed by the subject and then the object.

The Zapotec language comprises a large number of dialects that are classified according to the area in which it is spoken. There are northern, eastern, western, central, and southern dialects.

Religion and gods of the Zapotec culture

The Zapotec people were polytheistic because they believed in various gods. They worshiped their dead and believed in the existence of an underground paradise .

Their main God was known by three names: Totec (Greater God who ruled the town), Xipe (Creator God) and Tlatlauhaqui (God of the sun).

They also had other gods related to weather, harvest, and death. Among them the following can be mentioned:

  • Pitao Cocijo: god of rain and thunder.
  • Quetzalcóatl : god of the winds.
  • Xonaxi Quecuya: god of earthquakes.
  • Pitao Cozobi: god of young corn.
  • Coqui Bezelao: god of the dead.
  • Pitao Cozana: god of the ancestors.
  • Coqui Xee: the uncreated.

They also had some beliefs like the totem pole . This was a ritual in which mothers who were about to give birth, placed ashes where the newborn lived and wait the next day to see what footprint was formed on the floor. The footprint of the animal that was fixed among the ashes would be the little boy’s Totem. The totem signified the personality and the animal that represented the child.

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